An Educator’s Reflection on “The Abolition of Man” by C.S. Lewis

It was the subtitle of the book that first caught my attention: “How education informs man’s sense of morality.” If education is about shaping every aspect of the individual, then there must be some sense in which the learning experience helps to prevent a moral compass from achieving a haphazard formation, which may or may not be useful after graduation. It is possible to create a learning environment which is free from criticism and a profitable place for growing, failing, and working together with others to achieve a common purpose. However, if these things are valuable in the long run, students must have some reason for embracing these principles for their own value, not just because they are enforced in my classroom.

I was hoping to discover a way in which the learning experience could be enhanced to include the aspect of moral formation along with the aspects of cognitive, affective, and, perhaps one could include, spiritual development of the person. Surprisingly, the book did not provide an easy answer to my question. I was looking for techniques and it gave me philosophy instead. In fact, one of the arguments made by Lewis in “The Abolition of Man” was that our focus in education on techniques is a failure if we have no foundational direction in which to point the student.

The entire premise of the book seemed to showcase how a certain element of constructivist epistemology could undermine any effort to create an educated individual, much less a moral one. This was a particularly difficult pill for me to swallow as my own education philosophy is very much constructivist in nature (discovery learning, experiential learning, etc.). It is impossible to force a human being to fit into a particular mould and I do not believe that education should try to do this. However, water with no shape is not useful for drinking, storage, or transportation. Water without boundaries can become a destructive flood. There must be some kind of barrier to which it must conform in order to be profitable. So it is with the student.

Education without boundaries is good in theory, but it cannot be called education at all if there is no guiding structure to produce an outcome. If school did not provide instruction of some kind, it would have no purpose. John Dewey in his book Experience & Education also addresses this problem. His movement toward learning through experience in a constructive environment only was profitable if it provided enough context to move the student in a positive direction. Experiences are only as good as the ability of the individual to learn from them. Some need more support than others.

Unfortunately, the authors of the book that Lewis addresses in “The Abolition of Man” were caught trying to build an argument that it is impossible to propose any kind of direction in which the student might reasonably grow. This lack of structure is where Lewis suggests the abolition of man takes place. For the danger of constricting the growth of an individual to some particular (and perhaps wrong) way of thinking or predefined shape is equally offset by providing no boundaries or possibilities at all. If we are to assume that learning should happen, we must also acquiesce and that something ‘should’ be learned (a necessarily moral argument).

After digging deeply into the arguments and theories (perhaps more of which I will publish later), I found that the question the book left me with was focused on the nature of ‘HOW’ to facilitate a constructivist learning experience with enough structure that it becomes profitable for the formation of those individuals involved. Lewis did not provide a satisfactory answer this question, largely, I think, because he did not have a good alternative. The era in which he wrote saw the constructivist and traditional classroom at war and attached to two different allies. The first attached itself to the progressive epistemology that sought to eradicate any assumption that truth might exist. The second sought to force its version of truth upon the learner. Lewis effectively debunks the first through his little book, but also calls into question the nature of the second.

He would rather propose that there exists a truth, which he calls the Tao, to which centuries of civilization have sought to conform the unwieldy and destructive potential of human nature. The responsibility of the educator is not to help the student question whether there is a Tao at all, but to help them discover what it looks like and how it can inform the person they are in the process of becoming. In a sense it provides direction to a Human-Centered Learning model because it helps to identify what it means to be human, rather than leaving the definition completely open the whims of whatever mood breakfast has bestowed upon a person for the day.

It has already taken several readings to grasp a basic understanding of the brilliance contained within this little book (it is less than 100 pages). However, I think it well worth the time spent to understand the ideas it proposes and will probably continue to dig for what I think is the hidden solution to a balanced educational approach that can develop the individuals sense of morality without forcing them to embrace the academic anorexia that plagues the contemporary college and high school campus experience.

All references from “The Abolition of Man: How Education Informs Man’s Sense of Morality” by C S Lewis. For more blog posts in this series, click here.

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